Fennel seeds are the dried seeds of the fennel plant, which is an aromatic herb belonging to the parsley family. This herb is commonly known as saunf in Hindi. The fennel seeds are roughly 4 to 8 mm in length and each one looks like a grooved or ridged grain of rice. Saunf comes in colors ranging from bright green to pale green and tan. Like the fennel plant, the seeds have a licorice-like taste, although they are sweeter and slightly less pungent and intense than licorice.
Buying Fennel Seeds
Fennel seeds can be bought from most supermarkets and specialist herb or spice stores. All good Indian shops will stock them. While saunf is available in a wide range of colors, the freshest and best quality seeds are usually the bright green ones. Older seeds will lose this fresh color over time and will become more faded. When buying saunf, look for plump, unwrinkled seeds with a strong fennel fragrance. Store saunf in a cool, dark place away from the sunlight in an airtight glass container. A spice cabinet is a perfect place since most spices last longer and retain their potency for a greater period of time if stored this way. Do not keep fennel seeds for longer than six months.
Using Fennel Seeds
Saunf is used extensively in Indian cooking. While it is mostly used in seed form, some dishes do call for the seeds to be roasted and then ground into a powdered form. Some key Masalas (spice mixes) in Indian cooking, like Paanch Phoran Masala, have saunf as one of their ingredients. Saunf is often used in Tadka or tempering of dishes and in pickles and chutneys. It is also considered a digestive and mouth freshener. The seeds are chewed by many as an after-dinner 'mint' and can often be seen in Indian restaurants to take as a digestive on the way out. Saunf is also boiled and steeped in water, which is then strained and given to babies as a colic-reliever!
Some fast facts about fennel and the seeds are:
- Fennel is often given to nursing mothers to increase lactation.
- India is the world's #1 producer of saunf.
- Flies dislike fennel, so sprinkling some fennel powder in an area usually gets rid of them.
Harvesting Fennel Seeds
If you grow your own fennel, you can easily harvest your own fennel seeds and stock your spice cabinet yourself. As your fennel flowers are just beginning to turn brown and dry out, you should harvest the seeds. Simply clip the very top of the stalks where the flower heads grow. Place the flower heads on a tray and leave in a dry, dark place to fully dry out. This will likely take a week or two. Once dried, the seeds will dry up and drop off the flowers.